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Los Guilicos campus suffers bulk of county’s Glass fire damages

Dark soot escaped underfoot with each step on the wooded grounds of the Los Guilicos complex east of Santa Rosa, where flames two weeks ago caused more than $8 million in damage, a figure that represents the greatest losses from the Glass fire on county lands.

The fire consumed large swathes of the sprawling Sonoma Valley property at the foot of Hood Mountain Regional Park as the wind-driven blaze sprinted toward Highway 12 and into Oakmont and neighboring Trione-Annadel State Park. The Sept. 28 blaze charred countless old-growth trees and threatened a variety of buildings on the campus, including historic structures dating to the 19th century, Sonoma County’s Juvenile Justice Center, a 60-unit outdoor homeless encampment added in January and a large solar panel array that powers the 241-acre complex.

Still standing is the iconic white brick mansion built in 1858 known as the Hood House. The state landmark named for its original tenant, settler William Hood, is set to be assessed and cleaned later on. Other structures still used by the county, as well as outbuildings destroyed by the fire, will take higher priority, said Caroline Judy, the county’s general services director.

All told, the more than $8 million in estimated losses at Los Guilicos are roughly half of the hard costs the county suffered from the Glass fire. Most of the remaining county damages are to roads, public infrastructure and trees blackened by fire that have become hazards and must now be removed.

PG&E crews late last week were already on-site replacing wooden power poles and chipping problem trees. While safety and fixes to areas frequented by motorists are the focus, there is no timeline for addressing much of the carnage at the tucked-away county campus. A handful of buildings have already been labeled outright losses, and some repairs could take years.

“It’s just a cumulative effect of all these things that add up to these massive figures,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who toured the complex on Friday. “Even for the buildings that were saved, the infrastructure to the building is questionable — the storm water or the sewer or the electrical (systems), or whatever else. That can be a big-ticket item, especially up in this area where it’s large and spread out.”

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, center, with Caroline Judy, director of county general services, and Isaac Gentry, assistant building superintendent, survey burned buildings and garden plots in the Sierra Garden that were damaged during the Glass fire at the Los Guilicos campus in Santa Rosa on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, center, with Caroline Judy, director of county general services, and Isaac Gentry, assistant building superintendent, survey burned buildings and garden plots in the Sierra Garden that were damaged during the Glass fire at the Los Guilicos campus in Santa Rosa on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Initial loss estimates include more than $3.4 million in smoke damage throughout the campus, $1.7 million in impacts to the solar array and upwards of $1 million to water infrastructure. Another $1.3 million has been pinned to the loss of several storage facilities used by a mix of county agencies, from the Sheriff’s Office to Sonoma County Fire for EMT services, plus a modular unit where the county’s Regional Parks Department made signs.

“This one’s been red-tagged, so you can’t go inside,” Isaac Gentry, the county’s assistant building superintendent, said of the sign shop, with the heavy smell of fire still in the air. “It’s a total loss. What wasn’t damaged by the fire was damaged by the sprinkler system.”

Meanwhile, the EMT storage facility, which was one of several red stone buildings next to the Hood mansion, collapsed after winds came through a week later and knocked over the burned ruins that still stood. The structure was previously occupied by the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization that bought the land in 1924 and owned it for about two decades until selling it to the state for use as a girls correctional facility.

Still, the losses could have been much, much worse, said Santa Rosa Deputy Fire Chief Scott Westrope. Due to the 25 mph winds, flames raced down Mount Hood in a matter of moments, he said, forcing fire crews to pinball around the area to save what they could with limited time. That was before shifting to Oakmont a half-mile away, where they “drew a line in the sand” at Highway 12 to prevent major impacts to structures in the much denser neighborhood.

“Given the high wind speeds, it’s pretty remarkable what crews were able to save out there,” Westrope said.

Included among the saves were the vast majority of prefabricated metal-framed huts that make up the Los Guilicos Village homeless encampment just north of St. Francis Winery. Only four of the tiny homes, valued at $10,000 apiece, would end up burned to the ground, with two of the adjacent vinyl-sided units also scorched and rippled from the heat of the fire.

The ashes of one of the shelters at Los Guilicos Village that burned down during the Glass fire, in Santa Rosa on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
The ashes of one of the shelters at Los Guilicos Village that burned down during the Glass fire, in Santa Rosa on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Security staff at the village spotted an orange glow on the northern ridgeline shortly after 8 p.m. the night of Sept. 27, spurring several text messages to Chris Grabill, who jumped into his silver Ford pickup parked at his home in Roseland. Grabill, the housing and shelter services director with Sonoma County’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, which manages the permanent camp, picked up Santa Rosa Councilman Jack Tibbetts, the nonprofit’s executive director. Together they sped through traffic signals to get to the village off Pythian Road in about a half-hour and began rousting its 56 current residents.

“We went as fast as we could. I’m not going to say that I waited for every red light, considering what I thought might be in front of us,” Grabill said.

By then, staff had already, as a precaution, begun executing the village’s evacuation plan — practiced a single time a few months earlier. They loaded into large passenger vans the vulnerable residents, some of whom had experienced homelessness for a decade or longer, while Grabill and Tibbetts banged on the walls and doors of units for a few reluctant stragglers still filling the single backpack they were allowed.

It was raining ash and smoke, but the hillside was still absent visible flames, Tibbetts recalled. At that point, they weren’t convinced fire would actually reach the camp. But Grabill and Tibbetts made a point in that first round of resident checks to relay the potential gravity of the situation, and they would end up thankful they struck such a serious tone.

“By the third check, we realized it’s real and we are in danger, and it’s a good thing we were intentional about evacuating early and not creating a relaxed atmosphere about it,” Tibbetts said. “There was some dangerous stuff nearby.”

Within an hour, all residents and staff were headed to Santa Rosa’s Veterans Memorial Building. Most would end up sleeping in the parking lot after the evacuation site was overwhelmed with residents fleeing their homes.

Tibbetts and Grabill finally left the village just after 11 p.m. as winds picked up further. Stuck in Highway 12 traffic, they could smell the thick smoke through their N95 masks as they spotted a distinct “finger of fire” marching down the mountainside approaching Los Alamos Road. Two others would materialize, including the one at Hood Mountain that would strike the homeless camp.

Fire trucks and emergency vehicles by then were screaming past them toward the encampment, where firefighters helped save Los Guilicos Village. That effort left unaffected 54 huts, an open-air staff tent, portable restrooms and sinks and the fire extinguishers hanging between the blocks of units.

Also spared for the second time in four years were tens of thousands of irreplaceable records, photographs and maps that make up Sonoma County’s governmental archives. The Nuns fire in 2017 came within a quarter-mile of the rear warehouse on the Los Guilicos campus, which houses one-of-a-kind documents that date as far back as 1850, when the county was incorporated.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, right, Isaac Gentry, county assistant building superintendent, center, and Caroline Judy, director of county general services, gaze at the stacks of county records dating back to the 1850s inside the Sonoma County archives building at the Los Guilicos campus in Santa Rosa on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. The archives building itself escaped damage from the Glass fire but the Los Guilicos campus as a whole suffered fire damage estimated at $8 million. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, right, Isaac Gentry, county assistant building superintendent, center, and Caroline Judy, director of county general services, gaze at the stacks of county records dating back to the 1850s inside the Sonoma County archives building at the Los Guilicos campus in Santa Rosa on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. The archives building itself escaped damage from the Glass fire but the Los Guilicos campus as a whole suffered fire damage estimated at $8 million. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Flames this time came even closer to the 3,800-square-foot storage facility on Eliza Way. Katherine Rinehart, of the Sonoma County Historical Network, worries that the county won’t be so lucky if there’s a third wildfire in the vicinity.

If a fire strikes, “we’re losing our past. We’re losing any sense of where we’ve come from,” said Rinehart, former manager of the county’s History & Genealogy Library. “Sometimes the only place to find it is in the original documentation that exists in these records. It’s just less than ideal, and 2017 was a wake-up call, so let’s do something.”

Rinehart wants to see completion of a planned full inventory of the archive — documenting all of the land and road surveys, citizen naturalization records, building blueprints and decades of Board of Supervisors minutes. From there, she would like the archive moved to a future, slightly larger site that preserves and protects the priceless collection — out of the way from a historic fire path.

A few of the hundreds of county record books dating back to the 1850s inside the Sonoma County archives building at the Los Guilicos campus in Santa Rosa on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. The archives building itself escaped damage from the Glass fire but the Los Guilicos campus as a whole suffered fire damage estimated at $8 million. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)
A few of the hundreds of county record books dating back to the 1850s inside the Sonoma County archives building at the Los Guilicos campus in Santa Rosa on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. The archives building itself escaped damage from the Glass fire but the Los Guilicos campus as a whole suffered fire damage estimated at $8 million. (Alvin A.H. Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Thumbing through bygone assessment rolls and weathered tomes that list past residents of the Sonoma Developmental Center in the musty, concrete warehouse, Caroline Judy, the county’s general services director, agreed that losing such unrecoverable records would be forfeiting the artifacts of the county’s ancestors.

“I mean, it’s crazy the stuff in here. Just incredible stuff,” she said. “There’s many things that I would like to see. But to have a publicly accessible archive where people could come … I would love to see it. That, I’d really like to be able to do, and move the archives to a better location.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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